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Mark Twain under fire

Chris James

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We see this kind of censorship maneuver at least every decade, but this one disturbs me. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is still a timely classic and anyone who has read the story knows the author did not pull his punches. For years it was a story about the despicable American institution of slavery and the language was harsh. The politically correct folks objected to the N word and so the spate of banning began across the land.

This is the first I have even heard of a school reacting to the students objections, and it sounds like they are whining that the story is too hard:


Eleventh grade, on the cusp of adulthood, and they whine. Of further interest is that this is a Quaker school and if you know your history the Society of Friends was instrumental in running the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape from the South. Pennsylvania was a major terminus of that railroad and thousands of slaves made it there.

The students objected because they were made "uncomfortable" by the story and the school principal agrees. I guess they should stick to Cat in the Hat which is the least offensive book on the shelf. Twain intended the reader to be uncomfortable on many levels. A runaway boy befriends a slave and they have adventures, all the while fully aware that the law is looking for the man.

I remember the tension as I read the book when I was a child. It is one of Twain's most amazing literary works and any school that rejects allowing high school juniors to read this book is run by fools. History explained thru literature is one of the most important things we have to keep our society from repeating the mistakes of the past. Removing this book from a school library is a travesty and only makes our children dumb.

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I didn't know the politically correct movement had matured to the point where no child is to be made to feel uncomfortable. How are we to teach uncomfortable facts without making them uncomfortable? The Nazi's slaughtered millions of Jews; the German people stood by and did nothing. It certainly made me uncomfortable reading about their inhumanity. But it's a terribly important lesson. I guess they'll be banning Anne Frank, too, because that is similarly uncomfortable reading.

Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book on many levels. Banning it because people back then used the N word is beyond stupid. And what is worse, using a derogatory term, or enslaving an entire people? What, they don't have an objection to slavery, just the word?

The principal says it's a step forward that they're listening to their students' objection. Hell, I objected to gym, and music lessons, and math problems. No one listened to me. Why are they starting now? Look how much better off I'd have been if they'd listened to me and I hadn't had to take gym, or learn an instrument, or studied math.

Oh, wait. I wouldn't have been better off, would I?

That principal is an idiot.


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First of all, I object to The Cat In The Hat because it teaches kids that it's okay to allow strangers in the house without dialing 911, that your conscience belongs in a goldfish bowl where it can be ignored, and anything you do all day is okay so long as you clean it up before mom gets home! Shame, shame, you nasty school librarians!


Regarding Huck Finn, I find it a marvelous tale, and yes - I understand that it is a great window into the way things were in America during the early 19th century. (Actually, through the 1960s pretty much everywhere in America and still today in some places.) People casually used the title commonly. Then again, one also heard of Wops, Spics, Wetbacks, Kikes, Micks, etc. etc. Denigrating ethnicity, particularly during wartime and periods of social unrest, is American as apple pie. Look at the Krauts and Nips during WW2, Gooks in Vietnam, Ragheads and Camel Jockeys in the Middle East. The list goes on and on.

But I can somewhat understand the concern of kids. We've been pretty well bombarded with the "Thou Shalt Not" law regarding "nigger" although it was in the common vernacular in Twain's time and certainly Huck's. Kids have grown up completely in a post-N-word world. It could indeed be disturbing to be reading a book in class and have to use a word that is particularly noted for its specific cruel meaning. I might find it tough to look a kid in the eye after reading the material.

It would be akin to a book on the Stonewall riots where everybody could be casually referred to as faggots, queers, fudge-packers, etc. The terms don't really have a place in our common dialog and a gay student might feel unnecessarily uncomfortable during any related discussion. And the callous brutality of classmates can easily become a life-shattering event, be it related to sexuality, race, ethnicity...whatever.

Perhas it would have been better for the school to present students with a reading list from which they are to read and report on 3 of 5 books or something similar. That would permit students the option to read for credit without mandating it. But to simply excise it from the list is just not right.

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But, if it's shocking to these kids to see the word used indifferently and ubiquitously in past times, and it upsets them, isn't that good, and a perfect teaching moment? Something to be discussed in class? Because it's shocking, should we avoid it? Don't the kids need to see how far we've come, how our society has recognized its wrongs and changed? How we still have a ways to go, but that progress will be made if people keep recognizing wrongs and keep trying to fix them? Taking this book off the shelves is ignoring the past, ignoring who we were and what we've become. How does that help?


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Do note that the article said that the book is not being removed from the school library, just from the required reading list. I'm pretty sure it's also in public domain and can be downloaded free for anybody who wants to read it. Perhaps there will be a "forbidden fruit" cycle that drives kids to read it because it's been declared bad. Time will tell.

But for use in the classroom, I would submit that the school's decision to use Frederick Douglass's autobiography, coming from the same time period but written by a former slave himself, could provide exactly the educational benefits you're talking about. Sure it's not the work of the master of the written word, but Douglass did have a tremendous flair for public speaking; the subject of slavery and its end was the forefront of his thinking. And it's speaking to adults, which HS seniors are, or are about to become.

If I were a parent in that school, I might also suggest that my kid and I read Twain together and discuss it. School should never be the only place your child learns.

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If you aren't prepared to read anything that makes you feel uncomfortable you are not prepared to learn. If teachers are not making their students uncomfortable they are not teaching.

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I'm not concerned by what was done because this is a private high school that can do whatever they want.

I've never heard of a public high school in California (the only state where I know a lot about high schools, and where I volunteer at the local high school) that has removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from reading lists. I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was in the eighth grade in intermediate (middle) school — as assigned reading. Then we discussed it in class, including discussing the language and how it fit in with the time when the story was set.

Colin :icon_geek:

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One of the issues I have, Colin, is that a private school issues a certificate that is supposed to be the equivalent to all other schools and this proves that it is not. How would we feel if a private school only taught the multiplication tables up to 6X and felt the rest was irrelevant. What about the schools that teach creationism instead of the scientific facts in evolution? Would the belief in Adam and Eve riding a dinosaur allow their students into a respectable university?

We do a disservice to students by blocking out any portion of human knowledge, be it fact or fiction. Knowing the difference between what is real and not allows the human mind to make good decisions. Go ahead and discuss creationism, slavery, or anything else in the Bible, but please make note that creationism is based upon one book filled with ignorance about the way life evolved. As for Mark Twain, his stories should be discussed not dissed.

Here is a very good article about how Twain developed his views on slavery and the sources of his characters in Huckleberry Finn:


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I agree, Chris. Thing is, religion-based schools are allowed to teach things like religion classes, geography and science based on creationism, anti-gay and anti-abortion and anti-anything else they want, as long as they meet the minimum state requirements for classes like English, history, math, and PE. I sure wouldn't ever send my kids to that kind of school, but parents are free to do so because it's one of the freedoms we provide in the U.S.A.

Colin :icon_geek:

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